Rabbits and giant snails among rubber trees: Agroforestry rekindles rubber farming in Nigeria

Farmer with bush mango grown on the boundary of  rubber farm. Photo by Julius Atia/ICRAF

Farmer with bush mango grown on the boundary of rubber farm. Photo by Julius Atia/ICRAF

Nigerian rubber farmers are finding that diversifying their land with food crops, food trees and ‘small livestock’ like rabbits, bees and snails makes sense on many levels. The mixed farm brings in food to eat and income long before the 6 years it takes rubber trees to mature for tapping. And it buffers the farmer against the swings in global rubber prices that have historically discouraged farmers from growing the commodity.

In practice, the rubber agroforestry farmer plants rubber seedlings in rows with 8-metre ‘avenues’ between them; these avenues are used to cultivate faster-maturing food crops (e.g. cassava, plantain, maize, fruits and vegetables). The farmer may also rear ‘small livestock’ like rabbits, honeybees and edible snails for food and sale. On their farm boundaries, the farmer may plant superior varieties of indigenous fruit trees with high market demand: bitter kola (Garcinia kola), safou (Dacryodes edulis), white star apple (Chrysophyllum albidum) and bush mango (Irvingia gabonensis) are among the favourites.

“I have already started selling rabbits to other farmers and I have also eaten a few with my family” said Gabriel Ogwu, a farmer in Edo State who grew his rabbits to 22 from two in 24 months.

“Snails are very expensive here…just a few can fetch me a lot of money…and there are ready buyers,” said Richard Okoh, who is rearing African giant snails, a local delicacy, on his rubber agroforestry farm.

Rabbits provide food and an alternative income source for rubber farmers/ Photo by Julius Atia/ICRAF

Rabbits provide food and an alternative income source for rubber farmers/ Photo by Julius Atia/ICRAF

Another farmer, Umana Okoko, has found his bush mangoes to be highly profitable; the fruit is used to make the popular Nigerian Ogbono soup.

Rekindling hope

The stories of these farmers and other people involved in a rubber agroforestry project in Nigeria are captured in a new publication and video produced Julius Atia Iseli and colleagues from the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF)’s West and Central Africa Regional Office.

The project ran from 2009–2014, in a partnership between World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) and the Rubber Research Institute of Nigeria (RRIN). Operating in the Federal States of Akwa Ibom, Delta, Edo, Kaduna and Ogun, the initiative was financed by the Common Fund for Commodities (CFC), and supervised by the International Rubber Study Group.

Rubber agroforestry is “rekindling hope, raising incomes, improving livelihoods and helping smallholder farmers in Nigeria to turn a new page,” says the publication, a statement corroborated by the farmers’ testimonials.

“The system of intercropping is a very good idea because if one crop does not do well you will harvest the other and balance up,” John K. David of Eruere Farmers’ Cooperative Society in Edo State told Atia.

intercropping plaintain with rubber. Photo by Julius Atia/ICRAFCarbon and wood

Given that 70% of Nigerian rubber comes from small farms, rubber agroforestry could record major environmental benefits at a landscape scale. The rubber trees and the integrated crops and trees capture atmospheric carbon. And rubber wood can ease the extractive pressure on natural forests cover.

Dr Timothy Esekhade, of the Rubber Research Institute of Nigeria, with a fruiting bush mango tree. Photo by Julius Atia/ICRAF

Dr Timothy Esekhade of the Rubber Research Institute of Nigeria, with a fruiting bush mango tree. Photo by Julius Atia/ICRAF

“Rubber wood can be used for furniture. Instead of going to cut down the iroko (Milicia excelsa) and mahogany (Khaya senegalensis) trees, we can use rubber,” said Timothy Esekhade, a scientist at the Rubber Research Institute of Nigeria (RRIN).

Life-changing skills

Besides supporting individual farmers in rubber agroforestry, the project’s work has provided many farmers and farmer groups with life-changing exposure and skills.

For instance, a group of farmers from Edo state went on a project-sponsored exchange visit to India, where they met fellow rubber farmers and learned about value-addition to latex. On their return, the co-operative members raised money to acquire a Lohashilpi machine from India. The machine converts latex into rubber sheets which fetch higher prices than unprocessed latex.

Tree grafting is another life-changing skill the communities have gained. Once the preserve of big rubber plantations and specialized institutions, the project has succeeded in vulgarizing vegetative propagation and nursery-establishment techniques. These include grafting, which allows the identical reproduction of plants with desirable quality, from superior mother trees. Today, individual farmers, community nursery owners, women and young people are expertly grafting rubber and fruit trees for their own use and for sale. Grafting is an in-demand skill that can earn a person income through employment from nursery owners or even large rubber plantations.

Adetola Tonyn and four other women were trained in 2013 by a farmer trained through the project. She now finds regular work in community nurseries and rubber plantations.

“On a good day, I can bud 500 stumps,” said Adetola

woman budding rubberAdewale Onabekun started his tree nursery after receiving training from the rubber project. A year later he had raised and grafted 25,000 budded seedlings in his nursery.

“I planted 5,000 of them on my farm and sold the rest. I raised about 2 million Naira (about US$12,300),” he said.

Beyond the project cycle

The ability by community members to develop high-quality seedlings is easing the chronic shortage and high cost of quality tree seedlings of rubber and food trees common in the country.

Dr Zac Tchoundjeu, Principal Tree Scientist and ICRAF Regional Coordinator in the West and Central Africa region, says perhaps the most satisfying aspect of the project is that the methods and technologies promoted are spreading organically throughout the community, signaling sustainability.

“We are happy to know that the project’s successes have attracted more farmers even beyond the project sites,” said Tchoundjeu, whose work in participatory tree domestication won the National Geographic-Buffett Award in 2012.

More widespread rubber agroforestry, in which rubber trees co-exist with crops, food trees and livestock, could bring real and lasting benefits in Nigeria, and improve the supply of rubber to the global market.

Download publication [PDF]: Rekindling hope. By Julius Atia Iseli, Ebenezar Asaah, Chioma Okwu and Timothy Esekhade from ICRAF West and Central Africa website

See photos of rubber agroforestry in Nigeria

Watch video(YouTube): Rubber agroforestry in Nigeria rekindles farmers’ hopes


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Daisy Ouya

Daisy Ouya is a science writer and communications specialist with the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF). Over the past 15 years she has been packaging and disseminating scientific knowledge in the fields of entomology, agriculture, health, HIV/AIDS research, and marine science. Daisy is a Board-certified Editor in the Life Sciences (bels.org) and has a Masters’ degree in chemistry from the University of Connecticut, USA. Her BSc is from the University of Nairobi in her native Kenya. She has worked as a journal editor, science writer, publisher, and communications strategist with various organizations. She joined ICRAF in July 2012. Twitter: @daisyouya

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